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Worried about Altitude Sickness? 5 Ways to Prepare

Have you been thinking about traveling to Peru but you’re worried about getting altitude sickness?  This condition happens when you travel to a high altitude (elevation) too quickly without giving your body time to adjust to the lower air pressure and lower oxygen levels.  Anyone can get altitude sickness regardless of fitness or experience level, age, sex, or general health.   

The good news is, you don’t have to let a fear of altitude sickness prevent you from experiencing Peru.  With proper preparation, your body will adjust, and you will have an amazing trip.

Here, we list some essential tips that you should consider if you are preparing to visit Cuso or complete any of the high-altitude climbs in Peru:

  1. If you really want to enjoy your vacation and complete the expedition successfully, we highly recommend arriving in Cusco at least two days prior your trip.  During this time, try to do some light physical activities like walking around the city of Cusco or enjoying any of the free things to do in the area.
  2. Talk to your doctor before traveling if you have any of the following conditions:
    • Have a lung or heart condition
    • Pregnancy
    • Live at low elevation or previously had altitude problems
  3. Learn the symptoms of altitude sickness.  You’ll likely feel:
    • Nauseous
    • Lightheaded
    • Fatigue and loss of energy
    • Shortness of breath
    • Loss of appetite
    • Dizziness
    • Insomnia
  4. Be proactive about preventing altitude sickness. 
    • Arrive in Cusco 2 days before attempting to do anything strenuous so your body can acclimate.  This process allows your body time to adjust to the change in oxygen levels. Take your time when walking uphill.
    • Talk to your healthcare provider about taking acetazolamide (Diamox) before your trip. Taking it 24 hours before traveling to a high altitude and continuing for five days can help prevent altitude sickness. Dexamethasone can also be used preventively, but it can have serious side effects. Talk to your provider before your trip.
  5. Try to prepare in advance to help your body acclimate faster.
    • Find ways to “walk up”:  At home in your neighborhood or in an office or mall in your city, walk uphill and up and down stairs as often as possible, with or without a backpack on.
    • Go slow: if you are in Cusco or able to walk somewhere above 10,000 feet, don’t increase your altitude more than 1,000 feet a day for the first 2 days
    • Rest: when you are climbing, try to find a landmark (tree or rock) you want to walk to before taking a break.  Keep your mind busy with the beauty of nature to try to distract yourself.
    • Climb high and sleep low: If you climb more than 1,000 feet in a day, come down to sleep at a lower elevation.
    • Know your body: it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness. If you notice any symptoms, slow down and rest, drink water, and, if it’s possible, move to a lower altitude.
    • Stay hydrated: Drink 3-4 liters of water per day.
    • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and depressant drugs that can dehydrate your body.  These substances will have a stronger effect at higher elevations, which can impair judgment.
    • Eat carbs: Eat a diet that’s 70% carbohydrates while acclimating. 

If you get to Cusco and feel any symptoms of altitude sickness while you are not with a tour group, please stop and rest. If possible drink water and/or the local coca tea or chew candy with sugar to help stimulate blood flow. If you feel like it is an emergency, pop into the nearest restaurant or hotel so they can help you get oxygen or any other medical attention that might be needed. The locals in Cusco are used to seeing this type of thing are extremely friendly and helpful. Do not hesitate to ask for help if you need it.

Hiking to Machu Picchu? How to Prepare

There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu and now that the National Park is open to tourists again, we wanted to answer a few common questions about hiking into this magical place. 

How long does it take to hike to Machu Picchu? There are several ways to hike to Machu Picchu and it can take anywhere from 2-11 days.  Currently, the famous Inca Trail pilgrimage is still closed to tourism due to the pandemic, but there are plenty of other trails to choose from.  We are specialists in off the beaten path trails, managing small groups right now for the safety of our staff and customers.  Most of our treks are 5days and 4 nights – understanding that you want to see and experience other parts of Peru while you’re in the area.

Do you have to carry your own equipment?  No, you don’t have to carry your own gear during the trek unless you really want to.  Our staff will handle everything from end to end including tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and all food/cooking equipment.  We also provide duffel bags so we can carry your non-essential items from campsite to campsite.  You only need to plan to carry a day pack.

How do I prepare for altitude sickness? Unfortunately, you can’t prepare for altitude sickness. Every single person is going to feel differently when they arrive in Cusco (11,300ft), and there’s no way to tell if and when your body will acclimate until you get here. The best things to do on arrival are to rest, drink plenty of water, gatorade, or tea, and take your time walking from place to place.

What do you carry in your day pack?  We highly recommend you bring a day pack no larger than 30 liters (not affiliated, but something similar to these would be great).  You will be carrying any personal items you may need between campsites (passport, wallet, snacks, water, and rain gear, for example). Bonus points if it comes with a hydration bladder for ease of use.

How much water do I need to carry for the trek?  It depends on how much water you normally drink in a day or during a hike to say for sure, but we recommend bringing a 2L water bottle with you for the trek.  You will be able to refill your water at the lunch spots and at all camp sites with purified water provided by our staff.

What if I am vegetarian or I have a food allergy?  Our sales manager will ask you about your diet prior to your trip.  Based on the information you provide, our professional chef will make your meals during the trek according to your preferences or needs.

Is there a toilet along the trek?  There are usually no toilets on the trails, but we will set up a biochemical toilet at the campsites and lunch spots every day.  Along the trail, you may have to use nature.  Please keep in mind, that after using nature’s toilet, you cannot leave toilet paper on the trail.  Please bring your own plastic bag to keep any trash you may produce during the trek.  You can leave it at the campsite with our staff for them to take it off the trail at the end of the trek.

How cold are the campsites?  Depending on the hike you choose, it can get quite chilly.  We highly recommend bringing your thermal leggings.  The weather tends to drop at night, and sometimes you will get temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.  You will get an all-weather sleeping bag and liner from us if you choose to rent one (and a sleeping mat) which will keep you warm enough in your tent, but it will be a good idea to have extra layers including a winter hat and gloves.

How do I get back to Cusco?  The First Step team will manage everything from end to end.  We will ask you questions prior to your trip so your tour guide will know where to pick you up and where to drop you off after your expedition.  The only thing you need to worry about is enjoying your Peru experience with us!

Discovering Machu Picchu’s Backyard

If you’ve heard of Machu Picchu, chances are good that you’ve probably heard of the Inca Trail too.  It’s fantastic that this historic trail has gotten so much attention, but we’re finding most people now think that hiking the Inca Trail is the only way to get to Machu Picchu.  I am here today to tell you that’s not true!  There are many other trails that lead to Machu Picchu!

With the new regulations and limited permit availability for the Inca Trail, it’s becoming more difficult for people to get permits and it’s leading to disappointment among travelers.  If you want to hike to Machu Picchu and you a) can’t get a permit for the Inca Trail or b) would prefer to avoid the crowds, there are many alternative ways to get to there.  Eventually through our blogs we plan to tell you about every one of them, but today we will start with one of our favorites – the 5 Day/4 Night Salkantay Trek.

The Salkantay Trek begins from a town called Soraypampa (3 hours south of Cusco) and takes you over the snow-capped Salkantay Pass (elevation 15,091ft/4600m) through the cloudy forest and finally to Santa Teresa – Machu Picchu’s backyard.  Here are some of the things that make this trail great:

  • You will pass small villages and have the opportunity to interact with local, countryside people.
  • You will visit a coffee farm and have the freshest coffee of your life. You’ll see the process from the moment they pick the bean all the way to moment the first drop of rich brew lands in your coffee mug.
  • You have the opportunity to take a dip in some natural hot springs – they’ll be less crowded than the ones you’ll find in Aguas Calientes and you will get to feel all the benefits of the natural waters known for their healing abilities – perfect after 3 long days of hiking.
  • It’s mostly downhill! It’s not often the expression “all downhill from here” is welcomed, but after you reach the Salkantay Pass on day 2, the majority of the hike is all downhill.
  • You enter Machu Picchu from the back. This trail takes you around the mountain and into the Santa Teresa region – a part of the Andes that can really only be explored on foot.
  • It takes you through several microclimates – more than you would see on the Inca Trail. This trek has green valleys, snow-capped peaks (passing the 2nd highest peak in the Peruvian Andes), crystal clear blue glacial lakes, and the famous cloudy forest – a preview of what you would see in the Peruvian Amazon.

The Salkantay trek really is one you should consider if you’re planning to make the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.  Even if this one might not be for you, we encourage you to consider any of the alternative treks over the classic Inca Trail.  Calling them “alternative treks” should by no means leave you with the impression they are inferior.  Any hike through the Andes will be an unforgettable experience you will never regret.

If you’re interested in joining one of our Salkantay treks, please contact us or check out our product page to reserve your space.

How to Avoid the Crowds on the Inca Trail

By now, everyone has heard of the Inca Trail – the legendary trek leading to the lost city of the Incas – Machu Picchu.  This incredible trail takes you through some of the most amazing scenery in the Andes and passes massive Inca sites you’ve likely never heard of.

Typically, people complete this trek in 4 days – 3 long days of hiking and the 4th bringing you into Machu Picchu.  Over this 4-day experience, the most common questions we get are “how much farther?” or “are we almost done?” and our favorite – “how many more stairs?

We’ve realized over time that it might be a common misconception among travelers that this trail has to be completed in 4 days.  What if we told you there is actually an option to spread the experience over 5 days?  Over this last year, we had more customers opting in for the 5-day Inca Trail and the response has been incredible.  Taking this extra day will help you avoid the crowds, make the trek less strenuous, and let you have more fun so you may even want to come back and do it again.

Here are some reasons we think you should opt for the 5-day Inca Trail if you’re considering making this life-changing journey:

  1. We take the trail at a much slower pace. The days are shorter and the campsites closer together, so you have more time to take breaks and photos.
  2. The trail takes the same path, but the campsites are different. You start your days later and further away from the 4-day trekkers which lets you avoid the crowds not only on the trail, but in the evenings when you’re relaxing and trying to sleep.
  3. You have more time to enjoy the trail and the Inca sites along the way. Many people don’t even realize that there are Inca sites other than Machu Picchu.  Taking the trail at this pace gives you a chance to really explore each site and understand their unique purpose. 
  4. You still have 3 nights camping under the spectacular southern Milky Way, but you have a 4th night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes. This gives you a chance to sleep in a comfy bed, take a hot shower, and reflect on your journey before returning to Machu Picchu on the 5th
  5. You have the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu twice. On day 4, you visit the city in the afternoon, and you go back in the morning on day 5.  With the new regulations at Machu Picchu, we can’t stay all day like we used to so this opportunity to visit twice with one ticket is unique (stay tuned for a future blog about the new timing regulations!)

Regardless of whether you choose 4 days or 5 days, taking this journey will be an experience of a lifetime.  This trail is meant to be enjoyed and we often hear from our customers that they hold more value in the journey than in the moment they step foot in Machu Picchu.  If this is something you’re going to do just once in your life, we hope you take the time to really enjoy it and appreciate every moment. 

If you’re interested in hiking the Inca Trail over 5 days this year, please contact us for availability.  We would love to be a part of your experience.

Mamacha Carmen – The Biggest Peruvian Festival You’ve Never Heard of

If you’ve been doing your research on Peru, it’s likely that you’ve heard of the huge sun festival called Inti Raymi that occurs every June.  But did you know there’s another huge festival down the road from Cusco in July?

There is a town on the eastern slope of the Andes called Paucartambo (pronounced: pow-car-tom-bo) that comes alive with its own folklore.  Just about 3 hours north of Cusco, this town has celebrated a festival as big as the Inti Raymi for centuries, and it remains one of the most excellent opportunities for travelers to experience the authentic, Peruvian culture in person. 

Origin –

The origin of this festival lies in the 17th century when K’apaq Q’ollas (llama traders), from the highlands would frequently travel to Cusco through Paucartambo offering gifts and merchandise.  On one of these trips, the face of the virgin appeared in a clay pot.  The people of Paucartambo were inspired by this apparition and created a larger image of the virgin.  Since that time, locals from the area have held this festival every year to honor and pay tribute to the sacred image.

Today –

While Cusco is obviously well-known for its history and is considered to be the folklore capital of Peru, Mamacha Carmen is an experience beyond a typical festival with just dancing and parades.  Each custom dress, mask, dance, food, and drink tells a story the Peruvian people are happy to share to those passing through.

This festival takes place every year from July 15th to July 16th beginning with a parade in the main plaza and fireworks in the evening that light up the sky.  On July 16th, the main day of the festival, there is a morning mass followed by a full day of performances of original, regional dances.  Finally, you get to witness the highlight – the grand parade of the virgin Carmen followed by dancers and worshippers behind her.

If you want to experience the Peruvian living culture for yourself, sign up here.  This can be combined with any of our other tours or treks to create the perfect itinerary for you.

Tips to Fight Altitude Sickness

When people find out that we plan trips to Peru, 90% of the time the first follow-up question is “How do people handle the altitude?”

Unfortunately there isn’t one simple fix to guarantee you won’t get altitude sickness.  We have had ultra-marathoners get terrible altitude sickness while self-described “couch potatoes” feel no effects of elevation at all.  It’s impossible to know how your body is going to react once it gets to a high elevation.   The good news is, through trial and error, we have been able to come up with 5 recommendations that really help

combat symptoms and let you focus on the important task at hand – enjoying your vacation.   Please note – we’re not doctors – just people who have seen many travelers kick altitude sickness out of their systems.  The advice below comes from our experience only and isn’t meant to replace any advice you might get from a medical professional.  OK – here we go!

First thing’s first – What is altitude sickness exactly?

When your body gets to 5000 feet above sea level, it starts to recognize that the air is thinner and you’re no longer able to take in as much oxygen with each “normal” breath.  Your body compensates for this loss of oxygen by increasing your heart rate and working harder to pump the blood through your system.  If that isn’t enough fun for you, the high elevation also causes your sweat to evaporate faster so you really can’t tell how hard your body is working and losing water.  Sounds great, right?

In its simplest form, altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) occurs when your body adjusts too slowly or is unable to adjust to the lower oxygen levels.  You become dehydrated and your brain functions dilate to gather more oxygen which causes your brain to swell – basically giving you a headache.  Left untreated or if your body is unable to adjust after 2-3 days, it can become much more intense or dangerous, but typically if you follow our tips below, you’ll be over your headache and ready for action in no time.

Tip # 1: HYDRATE! Your body is working hard and your sweat is evaporating.  Replenish your fluids regularly throughout the day.  Plan to drink 1 to 1.5 liters of water per day above what you would normally drink at home.  Avoid drinks that dehydrate you like coffee and alcohol.  You don’t have to avoid everything for the whole trip, just the first day or 2 while your body is adjusting.  Stick with the local coca tea, water, or Gatorade until you feel like your normal self.

Tip # 2: EAT! Pack snacks or take advantage of the large portion sizes in restaurants.  Once you get around 12,000 feet, it’s better to pack in the carbs during the day and go wild.  Eat foods you enjoy to make sure you’re eating enough.  The altitude will suppress your appetite so you want to try to load up when you’re hungry during the day and avoid large meals at night.  We also suggest keeping coca candy or chewy candy like Starburst on hand that will take a little longer to consume.  Your body needs the sugar and it will keep your saliva flowing so your lips don’t dry out.

Tip #3: PROTECT YO’ FACE! At 10,000 feet, you will be much closer to the sun.  Sun burn = skin dehydration – which is not great when you’re trying to combat altitude sickness.  Cover up your skin as much as possible with sleeves, pants, and hats and make sure to pack on the SPF to any exposed skin (at least SPF 30).

Tip #4: PACK MEDS! Ibuprofen has been proven to be the best over-the-counter medication to combat altitude sickness so it’s good to bring some with you if you can.  If you’re really concerned, talk to your doctor about some of the other medications available today like Diamox which is supposed to help stimulate your breathing and circulate the oxygen if your body is slow to adjust.  Just be sure to read about the potential side effects before taking any medication.

Tip #5: EXERCISE! Do some cardio prep before you get here.  You do not have to be in the best shape of your life to complete any tour or trek in Peru, but it will help you combat altitude sickness if you exercise a bit before you get here.  Try High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT),  walking/jogging/running as much as possible, and taking the stairs as much as you can to prepare for your trip.  Any effort you put in before the trip will only help you in the long run.  Improving cardio fitness will help your body recover faster and adjust when it’s feeling deprived of oxygen at the high altitude.

Final thoughts: At the end of the day, the best we can do to prevent altitude sickness is to listen to our bodies.  If you get here and you don’t feel well, sit down.  Take a break.  Drink some water. Take in the view or snap some photos.  Respect the time it will take your body to get itself back in its comfort zone.  We plan each of our tours and treks so you have time to enjoy and not rush.  So sit back and trust that your body is working hard to get you back to your best self.

Have other tips or tricks that you found helpful on the trail?  We’d love to hear them in the comments.  Please feel free to share & stay tuned for the next blog!

How to Get Here

So you’re ready to come and visit?  That’s great!  Here are some tips for the best way to get here.

Getting to Peru is not as challenging as you think.  It’s not a large country but with the incredible Andes Mountain range running through the middle, it can be a little time consuming to travel from city to city. 

Machu Picchu, the former capital of the Inca Empire, and arguably the heart of Peru are all located in and around the city of Cusco.  Here are a few of our recommendations for how to get to Cusco and other parts of Peru:

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1) Book any international flight into Lima.  We always recommend that travelers book their flights into Lima.  As the hub of international flights, it tends to offer significant cost savings over trying to book a flight straight to Cusco.

2) Book domestic airlines between cities.  Domestic airlines like Peruvian Air, Avianca, and LATAM are much more affordable when booking within country.  *Please keep an eye on baggage policies though to make sure there are no surprises during checkin. *

3) There are optional buses or trains.  These options will save you some dollars, but they do take a lot more time.  A 45 minute flight between Lima and Cusco becomes 24 hours by bus.  The scenery is spectacular, but we don’t recommend traveling this way for anyone short on time or prone to motion/car sickness.

4) If you have any questions or want help booking your transportation throughout Peru, just let us know!

Stay tuned for more tips and tricks here on the blog!

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